Ancient Mining. Robert Shepherd. Chapman & Hall, London and New York, 1993. xv + 494 pp., 69 figures, 9 tables, 5 appendices, references, name-, site-, and subject indices. $128.95 (cloth). ISBN 1-85861-011-7.

Reviewed by F.R. Beardsley, Department of Anthropology, University of California-Riverside, Riverside, CA 92521 USA

Ancient Mining begins with an ambitious premise, to survey the history of the extractive industries from the dawn of history to the final years of the Roman Empire (p. v). It was intended to be a sequel to Shepherd’s Prehistoric Mining and Allied Industries (1980), but with a difference. By concentrating on a period in which written documents are available for scrutiny, Shepherd seized the opportunity to incorporate the commentaries of both classical Greek and Roman authors to establish the context for his ensuing discussions. He originally planned on treating both mining and metallurgy in this work, but as Shepherd himself notes (p. v), the work was becoming unduly long; so he decided to confine his topic to mining with references made to metallurgical industries, smelting, ingots, and so on.

Unfortunately, this rather laborious work did not seem to achieve all it promised. Ancient Mining was supposed to present a comprehensive account of mining in the classical era of the western world; yet, I suspect, its failure to do just this had much to do with the structure of the book as a whole and its treatment of the area eventually dominated by the Roman Empire. The decisions that go into designing a book and its format involve many choices. For a topic as large as ancient mining, the drawbacks are equally fierce no matter which arrangement might be selected–treatment by region, by stone type, or perhaps an approach through the history of technology. In either case, there is bound to be repetition, a tendency toward disorientation especially on matters of chronology–what came first? when? where? in the meantime, what was going on over there?–and the occasional irrelevant detail tossed into the maelstrom of historical events, e.g., the start of oil prospecting in 1933 in Saudi Arabia (p. 244).

The story of Ancient Mining is recounted in eleven chapters, along with five appendices which provide lists of the Greek and Roman authors consulted throughout the main body of the book, a chronology of Roman emperors, units of money, and so on. The main text begins with an introduction to mining. The first two chapters, Mining Practice in Ancient Times (Ch. 1) and Administration and Labour in Ancient Mines (Ch. 2), provide a useful prologue to mining practice, terminology, and the legal- and labor issues that were an inextricable part of mining in the ancient world of the Greeks and Romans. The latter chapter is illustrated with specific examples from the silver mines of Attica and textual sources from the Roman Empire. The former goes through the basic mechanics of both surface and subsurface mining, the various approaches toward excavating mining shafts, galleries, and the necessities of ventilation, drainage, and lighting.

Chapters 3 through 10 cover the geographic regions that were eventually absorbed into the Roman Empire: Greece (Ch. 3), Roman Italy and the Danubian Provinces (Ch. 4), Gaul and the Rhine Provinces (Ch. 5), Iberia (Ch. 6), the Middle East (predominately Anatolia; Ch. 7), Southwest Asia (Ch. 8), Egypt and North Africa (Ch. 9), and Britain (Ch. 10). Each chapter begins with a very, all-to-brief introduction to the geology and general overview of the political and social climate of the specific region; this is intended to set the stage for the pursuant discussions on mining. Shepherd relies heavily on classical period observers in his descriptions, as well as many sources that are historical in their own right, but otherwise seemingly out-of-date. One is left with the impression of a nineteenth century gazetteer, with snippets of information on various sites presented. This is, perhaps, not unexpected as Shepherd has gained his appreciation, interest, and understanding of ancient mining through a unique avenue. Shepherd is a mining engineer who encountered the evidence of many ancient workings during his own explorations.

Regional coverage throughout these eight chapters ( Chs. 3 through 10) is uneven. The chapter on Britain, for example, occupies nearly one-quarter of the total number of pages in the book, whereas the other regions have been allotted anywhere from 12 to 67 pages. Such an extended and lengthy treatment of Britain is probably best attributed to a couple of reasons, such as Shepherd’s own familiarity with the region, as well as the differential amount of research on mining and metallurgy that has been undertaken in Britain as opposed to the other regions. A casual glance through the literature will certainly demonstrate that British researchers are at the helm of research into early metallurgy, while references to personal insights and observations by Shepherd on ancient mining (particularly coal mining; pp. 389-390) will attest to his own acquaintance with the topic.

The final chapter, Ancient Quarrying and Sources of Building Materials in Ancient Times, extends the topic of mining to that of quarrying building stone. Like mining, this is a subject to which whole volumes can be dedicated, from the search for ancient quarries to the mechanics of quarrying and production. This single chapter is in essence a spectre of this larger topic. Shepherd presents a summary of the quarrying, transport and fitting of building stone, and then proceeds to take the reader on a whirlwind tour of each region (sort of a condensed version of the preceding chapter by chapter discussion of regions), identifying quarry sites and recording specific observations made by classical authors on the materials quarried (e.g., Pliny’s innumerable references to marble usage in the Greek Islands or Strabo’s mention of several quarry sites in Asia Minor).

Altogether, Ancient Mining was not wholly satisfying, although I must confess I approached this work with rather selfish motives. I wanted, or rather expected to gain some insights into historical mining (evidence, techniques, solutions) in other regions of the world beyond the one with which I am most familiar. I was surprised, to say the least, when I opened to the table of contents and discovered that my initial impression of the book and its coverage was considerably different than what was actually presented. Shepherd’s conception of ancient mining, indeed even his definition of ancient, differed from my own. I expected a book that would cover the globe; yet, here was a book confined to an area half a world away from my own. I realized I had to redirect my own expectations. Fortunately, we share some common ground. With the exception of metallurgy (an industry that is absent from the Pacific, a geologically young region with a dearth of ore bearing mineral deposits), methods and techniques of mining mechanics and building stone quarries pose similar problems and solutions in both our worlds.

There remain large gaps in the literature on ancient mining and quarrying, and I suspect that the hope and expectation was that Shepherd’s Ancient Mining might fill part of that gap. Shepherd, however, seems to have taken on a task that appears to have been much more formidable than he had anticipated. Yet, the book is not a complete disappointment. It contains many useful and interesting details that can surely be pursued with a cautious, thoughtful and thoroughly disinterested nature. Some of these bits and pieces of information include commentaries on local labor markets (e.g., p. 60, a discussion of renting slaves to concessionaires as part of the cadre of miners), the residual marks of mining and historical observations of the methods which produced those marks (p. 104, a description of possible rope marks left on a mine shaft wall during the removal of ore from a mine in Italy), or even the observation that 60 million tons of charcoal were needed to produce 200,000 tons of copper on Cyprus (pp. 114-115).

In the end, one is left with the impression that the book ends where it begins, that more work still remains to be done on mining and quarrying sites in western Europe (p. vii). I would suggest that this statement be extended to the other regions of the world as well. Shepherd’s efforts should be viewed as a first step in constructing a comprehensive exposition of mining in the ancient world, broadly defined. He would likely agree that his is not the final or definitive tome on a subject that is only just receiving the attention it deserves through the increased interest in provenance research, metallurgical studies, and inquiries into ancient technological industries.